Country sportsmen have good reason to be wary of the RSPCA but on the vexed question of dog registration and control, I believe that RSPCA policy on this is totally justified and thoroughly deserving of our support. As a dog-owner and lover, I am deeply embarrassed by the cruelty to dogs, the intentional abandonment of dogs and the sheer indifference of many dog-owners to dog-nuisance in Britain. Country people are only too aware of the sheep-chasing (and sheep-killing) activities of stray dogs. Urban dwellers are reminded daily of the distasteful problem of dog excreta on pavements and in town parks. We are all aware of the dangers of loose dogs in built-up areas or on country roads. Rescue organisations and dogs' homes are struggling with the appalling number of abandoned (not lost) dogs. Cruelty to dogs and negligent ownership are not exactly new problems but the increased incidence is a matter of great concern.
When I worked as a kennel-boy in my teens all the 'lost' dogs of the city came to the veterinary practice where I worked. And whilst I can remember fine-looking pedigree dogs being brought in for destruction by their owners, I can hardly recall a stray pedigree dog being brought in by the police. The story today is very different, with the rescue organisations of some pedigree breeds being overwhelmed by cases for rehousing and dogs' homes resembling a Crufts' reunion. The case, a few years ago, of a Weimaraner being attacked by its owner with a claw-hammer illustrates my point. The gundog breeds are now increasingly favoured by the socially-ambitious, perhaps being offered as a status symbol and an association with land and leisure.
But what are we all doing to promote responsible dog ownership? Well, let's sum it all up: Central government has abolished the dog licence and passed on all "dog in society" problems to local authorities - perhaps hoping it will 'go away'. The Kennel Club is against the RSPCA campaign, the BASC is against dog licences and other organisations who should be involved just keep their heads down. The poor old RSPCA doesn't have the freedom to sit on the fence or pass on the problem - just a dreadful situation to face daily, the buck stops with them. If each local authority decides on a different system of registration, licensing or control, which is quite possible, we will have, shall I say, the makings of a dog's breakfast.
The crux of the problem lies in three principal failings. Firstly, we have no nationally-approved scheme for identifying dogs by way of tattooing, freeze-marking or microchipping and there is no mandatory registration system to link a dog with a recorded owner. Bad owners cannot be traced. Secondly, there is no way of pressurising owners towards being more responsible; there is no direct levy on dog-owners and what you don't pay for, you don't value. Imagine the cost of removing 65 tons of dog excreta annually from the streets of Birmingham. Dog-owners do more harm to the cause of the domestic dog than any dog-hater. But the third failing is really the killer, literally the killer. Anyone, of any age, in any circumstances, can be a dog-breeder - with a bitch capable of producing over 100 pups in her lifetime. Yes there are by-laws about keeping dogs in some householders' agreements and there are, too, breeders' licences to be obtained if you have more than a certain number of bitches. But without a registration scheme who knows who owns what? As a result we simply have too many dogs being bred, being bred for early destruction in so many sad cases; is that humane? is that responsible?
When as a student I was a temporary postman at Christmas, delivering letters on huge council estates was not a joke. It was not so much the threat from individual dogs guarding their territory but that from roaming packs of dogs, led by a dominant leader and ready to work as a pack, which could be most unnerving. Why, in such circumstances, should the rest of society finance the dog-owning whims of other less responsible citizens? Having lived and worked on the continent for many years, the difference between there and here comes readily to my mind. Unlike say Belfast, you don't have to swerve to avoid stray dogs when driving in Bonn or Copenhagen; you don't get dog excreta on your smart shoes in Hanover or Brussels. But more importantly you do not get the appalling incidence of cruelty to dogs which we, supposedly soppy about dogs, cause as a nation. In each of those foreign places there is a high licence fee.
It is quite illogical for responsible people to resent high licence fees - they are already subsidising the dog-owning ambitions of the irresponsible. Responsible people don't steal cars, switch number plates or avoid paying car insurance and road fund tax. Cars became the subject of registration, licences and taxes because there was a need for control, a need to handicap the criminally-minded and the grossly irresponsible and to raise money to provide supporting services for the motorist. Dogs must now similarly become the subject of registration and licence for comparable reasons.
We hear the same old tired arguments about cats and horses not needing licences, so why dogs? But do the former chase postmen, foul pavements and public parks and bite people? I suspect too that the need to freeze-mark horses for identification purposes is now with us. I have heard it argued too that the tighter controls on the continent exist because of the rabies threat there. But that doesn't withstand closer scrutiny and is not advocated by continentals themselves. No, most of the arguments against the registration of dogs in Britain come from the wallet and not from the conscience. And that is in itself disgraceful. Either we value our dogs enough to make them recognised respected members of our society or we continue to pay nothing and care little.
I can understand some of the thinking behind central government's off-loading of the dog-control problem to local authorities, for it is the latter who have to keep parks, residential streets, pavements and the highway, clean, safe and available for civilised use. But who is going to solve the problem that has been off-loaded on to the RSPCA? They can't solve it - only struggle with it.
With 300,000 dogs abandoned each year in Britain, there is a quite scandalous situation to be remedied. The rate of abandonment increased by 91% between 1983 and 1986. There are around seven million dogs in Britain, more than a 15% increase since 1983. In stark comparison there are 800,000 dogs in Sweden and no strays; they have a high licence fee there. Over 5,000 pedigree dogs find their way to Battersea Dogs' Home each year, with German shepherds usually top, but Dobermanns and Staffordshire Bull Terriers go there by the hundred, with plenty of Labradors and Golden Retrievers too. Sadly only one seventh are ever claimed by their owners. Can we truly fault the RSPCA for using shock tactics to draw public attention to the plight of these unfortunate dogs?
The over-breeding of dogs, not so much by those who show dogs as by those who devote all their resources to making money out of dogs, really must be curbed. As dogs registered with the Kennel Club can attract a higher price and because local authorities issue breeders' licences, both have a role to play in reducing the number of dogs being bred - over-production being the root problem behind the "dog nuisance in society" dilemma. A case in recent years exemplifies the problem.
A Suffolk woman registered 185 litters of German shepherd dogs, the breed featuring most often in dogs' homes, in seven years. She then applied to the local council for an extension of her breeding licence. In those seven years, the KC Breed Records Supplement listed 1,043 puppies as registered by this breeder. Closer examination revealed 16 recorded instances of breeding from a bitch before it was 18 months old and seven instances of bitches having puppies from three consecutive seasons, one having five litters from consecutive seasons.
Twice this breeder was found guilty of breeding without a licence at all and once of running a pet shop without a licence. She then felt bold enough to attempt to increase her breeders' licence from 12 to 15 brood bitches. No doubt any opposition will be viewed as a breach of her civil liberties! A soft society deserves all the problems it gets. But my concern is for dogs; I would far rather see fewer dogs properly cared for, even if our individual freedom to own and breed dogs were to be affected. We have a higher duty to dependent animals. The KC has a role too with the ability to monitor the breeding rate of all pure-bred registered dogs and therefore the capability of reacting to over-production.
The KC obtains a large proportion of its income from registration fees. Recently their External Affairs Executive likened their role to that of your local registrar of births, marriages and deaths. With that kind of narrow approach we will never solve the problem of over-breeding. A machine can merely register dogs and record breeding histories, the employees of a club set up to promote dogs need a higher motivation. Computerised records can so easily record quality assessment, family health record, temperament, litter size, litter mortality and other valuable data - if the interest and the will is there behind the system.
To curb over-breeding it will take a sizeable registration fee, rather than an annually renewable licence with all the attendant administrative costs. The aim of this fee would be to record the dog's existence and identify its owner then record any change of ownership, linking the dog with a fresh owner. If compulsory registration were to be introduced and combined with identification numbers on each dog, there would of course be a consequent temporary rash of irresponsible abandonment and dogs would in the short term suffer. But from then on people would think twice about owning a dog or breeding a litter and wouldn't find it easy to abandon a dog.
I would support not an annual licence but a one-off £30 registration or change of registration fee for every dog, with £50 to register a litter. But I would waive the fee, not the registration or the identification mark, for all working dogs whether they be sheepdogs, guide-dogs, police-dogs, customs' sniffer dogs and, for the first time, gundogs which earn their keep. Difficult to define working dogs across such a wide field? Certainly, but it is a time to be positive not negative and for organisations like BASC and BFSS to come up with some constructive proposals, not to protect the pockets of their members but to contribute towards the better care of dogs.
This would have two admirable features. It would provide an incentive for working dogs to be employed and not just admired for their looks. Secondly it would provide a huge disincentive for those who trade in dogs. The Suffolk breeder who registered 185 litters in seven years would have to pay almost £10,000 for that activity. We must now all face the problem we have handed on to the RSPCA; authority without responsibility is a luxury no worthy organisation can afford but the RSPCA has no authority and ends up becoming responsible for the sins of others. In 1988 Battersea Dogs' Home took in 21,004 abandoned dogs; in 1888 they took in 21,593 - not much progress in those 100 years. We are not a nation of dog-lovers at all; we are a nation of dog-exploiters.